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Jane Austen in Manhattan

Jane Austen in Manhattan(1980)

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Now available from Home Vision Entertainment and the Criterion Collection is producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory's production Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980). Starring Anne Baxter, Robert Powell, and newcomer Sean Young, Jane Austen in Manhattan is an interesting experiment that does its best to take advantage of a less than desirable genesis.

The film was conceived under rather unusual circumstances. It began when a manuscript of Jane Austen's childhood play, based on Samuel Richardson's novel Sir Charles Grandison, was sold at a Sotheby's auction in London. Newspaper owner David Astor snatched up the rights to the manuscript and was in turn approached by a London television show for the production rights. Both Astor and the London television producers apparently pursued the manuscript without having read a word of it. But then Melvyn Bragg, as associate on Merchant/Ivory's, mentioned to the filmmaking partners that the play had been optioned and they became enthusiastic to mount a film version, also without actually having read any of the manuscript. When Ivory finally received a copy of Austen's hot property, only then did he realize that it wasn't a manuscript ready for prime time or curtain call, just the childhood curiosity of a future literary giant. Nevertheless, Merchant/Ivory co-opted frequent screenwriting collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to pen an adaptation of Austen's early work. Having realized that a straight adaptation of the work was impossible, Jhabvala pulled what might now be called a "Charlie Kaufman," by writing a screenplay about adapting seemingly unadaptable source material.

The film begins with Pierre (Robert Powell), the guru leader of an avant-garde Greenwich Village theater troupe, pushing George Midash (Michael Wager) into bidding at auction on a newly discovered childhood play written by none other than Jane Austen. Pierre is determined to put on the play with his Manhattan Encounter Theatre Laboratory while another theater director and acting coach Lilianna Zorska (Anne Baxter) wants to do it as a standard operetta. The differences between Lilianna and Pierre's competing interpretations are many, but Pierre's takes the cake in terms of weirdness: a production mounted on a stage of foam rubber. The race between Lilianna and Pierre to get each of their productions to the stage first is not really about competing artistic visions as much as it is a battle of egos. Pierre is a former lover and student of Lilianna's who has since begun a commune of drifters, fragile dreamers, and failed actors. Pierre holds and enjoys a Svengali-like power over the members of his troupe, but none more so than on Ariadne (Sean Young), an actress who has fallen in with Pierre's troupe, much to the chagrin of her husband and fellow actor Victor (Kurt Johnson). Victor seeks out Lilianna, his former teacher, for her counsel and influence. Lilianna then begins an effort to lure away Ariadne and other disaffected members of Pierre's troupe to work in her own production of Austen's play. (Katrina Hodiak, Anne Baxter's daughter with actor John Hodiak, co-stars as one of Pierre's more conflicted troupe members.)

After the premiere of Lilianna's own production, her lead actor Victor laments one critical reaction to his performance when he says, "Why frivolity? Could someone tell me that?" This movie is working within the realm of satire but it could have used a little bit more of what Victor is so disparaging of. Frankly, the film becomes stuck in the self-importance of the low-budget avant-garde theater scene and begins to take itself too seriously. Merchant/Ivory productions from A Room with a View (1986), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993) have since not been a laugh riot, and thankfully so. But Jane Austen in Manhattan is supposed to be satirical comedy and could have used a more light-hearted approach. It is instead a curious bore.

In terms of quality, the DVD production is nothing to write home about. Audio and visual quality is quite poor, and certainly not befitting of the Criterion Collection's name, even though Criterion is not the primary producer behind the Merchant/Ivory Collection. The only special feature to speak of is one of Ivory's first film projects, Venice: Theme and Variations, a short documentary in 16mm about the history of Venice, presented through the works of art proudly displayed throughout the city.

With ample financial aid from the University of Southern California, Ivory photographed, wrote, produced and directed what was actually his master thesis project. It is a lovely short that doesn't try to encompass the culture of the city, but offers a brief glimpse of the ancient city through its artistic renderings, from medieval to modern.

For more information about Jane Austen in Manhattan, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Jane Austen in Manhattan, go to TCM Shopping.

by Scott McGee